How To Overcome Language Barriers When Doing Business Overseas

Language barriers are one of the greatest obstacles to overcome when doing business overseas. Being able to communicate effectively with staff, suppliers, customers and buyers can often make the difference between success and failure, writes Heather Landau.


Having your business proposition lost in translation can inhibit growth, damage relationships or simply baffle your audience. Illustrated by the number of confused Germans taking pictures of gift shops in the UK (Gift means poison in German).

There are however a number of tools and resources that can be used to help avoid any miscommunication, giving your business every chance of overseas success.







Employ Someone Local

While many opt to hire a translator, employing a local resident with the necessary skills can have a number of advantages.



Having an employee with a pre-existing network of local connections can help speed up the process of winning new business via referrals. As opposed to a translator, if a local employee has a vested interest in the company, they are arguably more inclined to assist with introductions that will allow for quicker expansion among the local audience. The recruitment process will be key in determining if this strategy is viable or not.


Customer relationships

Yes the world is getting smaller and international business is incredibly common, but local suppliers will no doubt feel a certain level of reassurance that someone who understands their local market, and any potential challenges they may face are a dedicated member of the team. Having someone they can call in an emergency can help alleviate any concerns they may have when dealing with a new, unproven company.



Sometimes even if the translation is perfect, context can still inhibit your message from being properly received. Having someone who understands cultural nuances can potentially avoid any embarrassing or insensitive pitfalls. A recent example came from the hair company Clairol who promoted their ‘Mist Stick’ to the German market. It’s unlikely that anyone wanted to buy the Clairol ‘Manure Stick’.


Learn The Language

It may seem simple but taking the time to learn a language can have a profound impact on the success of your business. Even if you don’t have time to become completely fluent, taking the time to learn a few phrases will help build admiration and respect.

This is particularly effective in countries like France and Japan where trying, and maybe making a few mistakes, is held in much higher regard than simply not trying at all.  Online language services like Rosetta Stone or Busuu are great tools for beginners with little or no experience.


Use visuals

Everyone can understand a pie chart! Considering most of humanity are visual learners, changing the content of presentations, training manuals and instructions to include more visual information can help get your message across in a concise and clear manner.



When communication ideas, particularly to overseas staff, repetition can help reduce any potential ambiguity. When asked if they understand, many people will say they do, even if they don’t. No one likes to look stupid. By making sure you repeat your instructions, or even by asking team members to repeat them back to you, you can help address any miscommunication before it’s too late.

Following up any verbal direction with clear emails, just to be on the safe side, is another effective method of making sure you’re message has been understood.


Avoid jargon

If you are speaking English to potential partners, try to avoid any country centric business jargon. English is difficult enough to learn and understand without having to contend with phrases like ‘ballpark figures ‘ or ‘getting all your ducks in a row’. Use formal language as often as possible and it doesn’t always hurt to slow it down a little too.


Free translation tools

Useful in certain situations are the host of free translation tools that can help break the language barrier. Google Translate is a popular option and even has a feature that helps with the pronunciation of a word. Be careful though as these tools are not always 100% accurate and should never be used for translating marketing materials or important documents.

Starting a business overseas can be incredibly exciting and profitable, but effective communication will be one of the most important obstacles to overcome. Hopefully some of the tips above will contribute towards the success of your overseas venture and will to help avoid any unwanted embarrassments.


This post was written by Heather Landau, managing director of  Open A European We offer our clients a number of services including company incorporation in the UK, Europe, bookkeeping, virtual offices, tax planning, accounting, and immigration advice.